Directed by: Eli Roth
Premise: An adaptation of the book by John Bellairs. An orphan (Owen Vaccaro) moves in with his uncle (Jack Black) who practices magic. They team with a female magician (Cate Blanchett) to unravel the mystery of a magical clock hidden in the house.
What Works: The House with a Clock in Its Walls is reminiscent of the live action movies Disney was making fifty years ago. It has a similar tone and ought to entertain both children and their parents. And like those movies from decades ago, The House with a Clock in Its Walls isn’t afraid to scare kids. The movie is just the right amount of spooky and it alternates mild shocks with moments of humor. In that respect, it is a surprise to find that The House with a Clock in Its Walls was directed by Eli Roth, a filmmaker who is best known for hard-R gore pictures like Cabin Fever and Hostel. Roth has previously shown a capacity for humor but the comedy of The House with a Clock in Its Walls suits the family audience. His previous films were also very nasty with a sardonic take on humanity. The House with a Clock in Its Walls isn’t like that at all. The movie is earnest and good hearted and this film demonstrates that Roth’s filmmaking strengths are much broader than he’s shown us before. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is about magicians using their powers for good and the movie has the appeal of early Harry Potter; it gets the wonder of the magic but it also empathizes with the experiences of children. There is an interesting relationship between the orphaned young man, played by Owen Vaccaro, and a school friend played by Sunny Suljic. This relationship doesn’t go the way we might expect it to and the disappointment is quite honest. The House with a Clock in Its Walls has some other emotional moments that give the characters depth and are more complex than we’re used to seeing in a family film. The House with a Clock in Its Walls also benefits from its casting. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are terrific as magical practitioners and they have a likable rapport, lobbing playful insults at each other in a way that’s fun.
What Doesn’t: The House with a Clock in Its Walls runs a little long. The main storyline doesn’t have that many plot beats to it but the movie is padded with a lot of sequences about magic that don’t set up or pay off anything. The film also introduces several other young characters such as a female student played by Vanessa Anne Williams, but nothing is done with them. It may be that the filmmakers include these characters in anticipation of sequels but in this installment nothing really happens in their scenes. One odd choice in The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the absence of Cate Blanchett in the ending. The three principal characters band together to prevent the apocalypse but Blanchett’s character is dispatched early on in the climax. The idea is to remove her and Black’s characters from the action so that it’s up to their protégé to save the day but this undermines the themes of teamwork that drive the rest of the movie.
Bottom Line: The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a satisfying family movie. While it runs a bit long and the ending is a little clunky, it’s also an ideal picture for a family trip to the cinema especially in Halloween season.
Episode: #719 (October 7, 2018)